The Gambian authorities said this week they were questioning a group of 63 Ghanaian children, most of whom were girls who had been trafficked into the country for use as “sex slaves” and unpaid domestic servants.
Immigration officials said on Wednesday that they had cracked a child trafficking ring which was bringing in the teenagers into the country illegally to work for a community of Ghanaian fishermen living on the coast.
The Coordinator of the Child Protection Alliance in the Gambia, Jalamang Camara, said the children, aged between 12 and 18, were rounded up in a joint operation last week involving child welfare activists and Gambian intelligence and immigration officials.
“They can neither speak English nor any of our indigenous Gambian languages,” Fanta Ceesay, Gambia’s Director of Social Welfare told IRIN. “They were illegally trafficked into the Gambia.”
Gambians have been shocked at reports in the local press that most of the teenagers were being used as sex slaves.
The girls were discovered in a fishing community 25 km south of the capital Banjul known locally as ‘Ghana Town’. It is populated almost entirely by Ghanaian fishermen and their families.
Communities of Ghanaian fishermen are found right along the coast of West Africa. Ghana Town in the Gambia was founded in the early 1960s and its inhabitants had always been considered hard working people who kept well clear of crime.
Most of the fish they catch is smoked and sent back to Ghana where it fetches a higher price.
According to the Gambian National Intelligence Agency, the girls were smuggled into the country without official papers to work as sex slaves for their Ghanaian masters.
Ceesay confirmed this. She said the girls were forced to “satisfy the sexual desires of older men” and some were working full-time as prostitutes within the 5,000-strong Ghanaian community.
The Gambian authorities said that the girls were also made to work long hours smoking fish and selling gari, a popular Ghanaian staple made from cassava. Some boys smuggled into the Gambia were made to work as fishermen.
Meanwhile, their masters’ own children went to school and had all their usual domestic chores, like washing their school uniforms and even cleaning their shoes, done for them by the trafficked children.
The trafficked children told Gambian officials they had been forbidden to contact their parents at home.
Reports of child slavery are common across West Africa. Impoverished parents are often duped into sending their children with the traffickers on the pretences that the child will be given a better life, or education with a host family oversees.
Sometimes parents are told that the child will work as a domestic for rich folk and will be able to send back remittances to ease the family’s grinding poverty.
The promises soon vanish into thin air. Many parents never see or hear from their children again.
Tamsir Jassey, the Deputy Director of Immigration, said that in some house-to-house cases his officials had found more than a dozen Ghanaian slave girls living in one room.
The issue of child abuse, and particularly child sex abuse, has only recently come to light in the Gambia. However, the use of children as slave labour is common in Ghana, particularly on Lake Volta.
No evidence has emerged so far to suggest that the Ghanaian girls were being offered for sex with European tourists who crowd the Gambia's sunny beaches and often look for sexual encounters.
A report issued last year by the Dutch arm of the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Terre des Hommes, said that the rise in sex tourism in the Gambia was ‘alarming’.
They said that western tourists were able to take advantage of young girls and boys for sex because of poverty.
Gambia is one of the world’s poorest countries with 70 percent of the population loving below the World Bank poverty threshold of US$1 per day.
In Gambia, a relatively good job, such as a waiter in a tourist hotel pays US $ 25 per month, but that money will go to support a whole family that could typically have a dozen people in it.
This poverty, according to Terre des Hommes, enables unscrupulous tourists to buy or pay children for sex.
Last year a Dutch-owned motel just outside Banjul was closed down and its owners were arrested and charged with crimes including child sex abuse.
Police have apprehended a number of child traffickers involved in this latest affair in Ghana Town. Officials said door-to-door searches were being conducted to see if any more children could be rescued.
Ceesay said most of those identified so far appeared to have come from the Central Region of Ghana. No information was given about any plans to return the children to their families.
“The Child Protection Alliance is working closely with the National Intelligence Agency, Immigration Department and Social Welfare Department in this matter and will take all necessary action once the investigations are completed,” Camara told IRIN.